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An exotic adventure

Friday, June 20, 2014

With delectable food, incredible landscapes and wonderful people, the island country of Madagascar is more exotic and beautiful than you’d ever imagine. Preeti John tells us how she had the experience of a lifetime

Madagascar was always high on my list of must-visit destinations, but I never thought I’d get to visit the beautiful island so soon and on my honeymoon to boot! I’m not ashamed to say that my fascination with Madagascar began when I first watched the film Madagascar. Who wouldn’t want to visit a place that has been epitomised by loveable animated creatures?!

Down to the details
Since Madagascar is not a popular tourist destination, planning our trip took a little more research than usual. Even on the internet, information is not readily available — we had to go through an exhaustive search for online resources. It’s a good idea to get in touch with some locals before you visit, and this is where social media came to our rescue!

There are several beautiful places to visit in Madagascar, so we were spoilt for choice. Although a 12-day honeymoon is a long break, for Madagascar it is just not enough. After weeks of research, corresponding with hotels and detailed planning, we finally decided to travel from Antananarivo (the capital, in central Madagascar) to Isalo National Park in Ranohira in the southwest, and then onward to Ifaty beach in Tulear in the south.

Experience the sights and sounds
Antananarivo (also Tananarive or Tana, as the locals call it) is by far, the country’s most developed and bustling city. It isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from a capital city, but its simplicity will draw you in. There are several accommodation options ranging from budget picks to uber-fancy hotels. We picked a rather quaint French hotel, La Ribaudière, for our first two days in the country. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant specialises in delicious French cuisine.

Tana does not have much to offer in terms of sightseeing, but the markets are excellent. We were quite impressed by the main Analakely market — a packed, bustling place where everything under the sun was available. But, beware of your surroundings and be careful of your bags and wallets!

The Tsimbazaza Botanical and Zoological Park was next on our list and it serves as the perfect introduction to Madagascar’s unique flora and fauna. We spotted the fossa (a large, fierce, cat-like animal that is endemic to Madagascar) and several lemurs (also endemic to the island). After a few hours of walking around the zoo, we visited the private Lemur Park. A sprawling forest area, the park is home to nine different species of lemur.

Moving on
Day three of our time in Madagascar began at 4am. The drive from Tana to Ranohira is roughly 750kms, so people suggest spacing it out over two days. We ignored that warning and insisted on getting there in a day. We drove on what is arguably one of the best roads in the country — the RN7. A drive on this national highway will introduce you to the best sights of the country. We moved from the inhabited hills of the capital, driving through picturesque valleys and endless fields, passing through towns and villages with enthusiastic locals waving to us. All these sights flank the road on either side, so you have the best drive-by view all the way through.

At Ranohira, we experienced what is best described as a sight of heaven. Les Toiles De L’isalo (the stars of Isalo) is a beautiful hotel right by the side of the Isalo National Park, which offers excellent views of the park and its surroundings. As beautiful a view as you will see during the day (think: a setting sun, a red-orange endless sky, birds flying, green trees all around), it was the night sky which we aren’t likely to forget for a very long time. For the three nights we were there, we sat agape at the view before us. We had never seen so many bright stars before.

Trekking at the Isalo Park was a wonderful experience. The park consists of sandstone formations dating back to the Jurassic period, deep canyons with riparian forests, open grasslands, and many lagoons and waterfalls.

Two days later, we headed to the beach, once again taking in the amazing scenery. I am a water-baby and most at peace when I’m at a beach, so Ifaty was my dream come true. The clear blue water of the Mozambique Channel and the pure white sand were enough to make me never want to leave.

If you visit Ifaty beach and stay at any of excellent hotels there, you must go to Princesse du Lagon and spend an afternoon in the pool. It is a view you wouldn’t want to miss. The five days we spent at Ifaty were gastronomic heaven for us, seafood lovers. We ate crabs, lobsters, squid and barracuda, all cooked to perfection in delightful flavours. The hotel also sets up candlelit dinners for their guests on the beach. Imagine a dark night, barely illuminated by the single candle at your table, the twinkling stars above you, the waves at your feet and soothing groovy island music drifting in from the speakers.

It took some effort but we managed to detach ourselves from all the pampering to visit the nearby baobab forest, a group of majestic trees, each about 30 feet high. The baobas, native to Africa, have massive trunks and comparatively small branches and are quite a sight! Standing next to one of these towering trees makes you marvel at nature.

On our way back to Tana (a 1000km drive), we stopped for a night at La Varangue Betsileo in Ambalavov. A beautiful villa-hotel, owned and managed by an old French couple who live there as well, La Varanague is definitely a place I’d recommend. Madame Sylvine, a lovable grandmotherly lady, cooks for all guests and her dishes are simply exquisite. If you’re lucky, like we were, she’ll serve you her special berry ice cream for dessert and pack you some homemade cookies for your onward journey.

Travelling around Madagascar and meeting locals from different parts of the country proved one thing — the locals in Madagascar are kind-hearted, genuinely nice, simple people, who are always smiling and willing to engage in conversation, even if you do not speak the same language. The country is filled with beauty and has an unexplored aura, devoid of commercialisation, which was something that we relished, and it played a big part in us enjoying a thoroughly relaxing trip.


Time your visit
The best time to travel is between May and October when the climate is relatively cool. November-April is the hot, rainy season, and severe cyclones are known to lash out against the east coast during this time. The advantage of travelling in the tourist off-season is that flight tickets are substantially cheaper.

Know your languages
French and Malagasy are the most widely spoken languages in Madagascar and you’ll to find English-speakers only in big cities. Carry a French to English dictionary for easier for communication with the locals; however we didn’t have one, and managed just as well. It’s a great way to interact with the locals when neither of you know what the other is saying at first.

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